Nine months ago Deborah Fleming had lost her job and was wondering whether the loss of her childhood dream would follow.
In primary school, the now 29-year-old told her teacher she wanted one thing: to represent her country in sport.
A few years later that goal was narrowed down slightly. Fleming wanted to compete for Great Britain at an Olympics.
A couple of decades on in February 2020, the aim was in touching distance. Fleming was hoping to be part of the GB sevens squad travelling to the Tokyo Games.
She had just played a World Series tournament in Sydney when news came that the Games would be postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But it was five months later that the real blow was dealt as it was announced that the Rugby Football Union was cutting funding to its men’s and women’s sevens sides.
Left jobless, Fleming took work managing a gym and returned to play XV-a-side for Premier 15s club Saracens.
“I came to terms with the fact that maybe my international career was over,” Fleming recalls.
“I talked to a friend in the squad who knows me well and she could see I was really stressed.
“I was having to go into work for a full day, having to train beforehand then drive to north London to do a Sarries session, get home at 10.30pm and then repeat that.
“Your output is too high and I knew it wasn’t sustainable. It was very draining emotionally and physically.”
‘Old-school Rocky’ training aged nine
Although GB sevens team leader Charlie Hayter admits there was once a “very real danger” that Great Britain would not have teams in the event in Tokyo, things are thankfully back on track for both sides.
After securing National Lottery funding they were able to begin training again and will play their first international tournament in over a year this weekend.
In an event at St George’s Park, the women’s team will play France and Ireland while the men face the United States and Ireland.
By the end of June, Fleming will learn whether she can add Olympic selection to an already illustrious career that has seen her win Commonwealth bronze and be England’s leading World Series points scorer for two consecutive seasons.
Tokyo would be the culmination of a twisting and turning journey that all started in the small village of Gulval in Cornwall, where Fleming was born.
A couple of years after she shared her international sporting ambitions with the schoolteacher, Fleming finally settled on which sport she would be competing in. Rugby was not even on her radar.
“My dad always had athletics on,” she explains.
“When I was nine I pointed at the screen and said, ‘I want to run like that’. It was the men’s 100m race.”
Fleming’s dad Charles agreed to help her train, taking her to Cornwall Athletics Club once a week and coaching her himself the rest of the time.
She describes his style as “old-school Rocky” with sand dunes, running waist-high in the sea in winter and tyre dragging all in the schedule.
Fleming credits her dad’s early work with making her the athlete she still is today. After much questioning, she is happy to reveal that her GPS speed scores – 9.8 metres per second – are the highest in the GB team.
It is no surprise given that as a child she competed for her county in the 100m before turning her attention to netball at university.
There, she decided to move away from athletics and take part in a talent identification programme where she was invited to try rugby sevens.
The same tenacity that has helped Fleming through the past year was there to drive her to the top of the game and she was awarded a full-time England sevens contract in 2016.
Fleming describes her character as “relentless” and, as well as pushing herself despite the challenges of the last year, she encourages team-mates to bring their best too.
“She’s very competitive on and off the pitch,” GB women’s head coach Scott Forrest says.
“She wants to win at everything she does, which is brilliant. She’s been a big part of this programme in terms of pushing and challenging herself and the other players and myself as a coach.”
Fleming brings this passion to other areas too. This year GB sevens is offering equal pay to the men’s and women’s sides for the first time and Fleming says this is “so important”.
“We need to keep pushing for further equality,” she adds.
“There are so many areas that still need to be improved across women’s sport, especially in England.”
‘I’d love to inspire other mixed race girls’
Alongside the uncertainty around her sporting future, Fleming says the impact of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global discussion on race made the past year “one of the most emotional” of her life.
“I have experienced a lot of racism,” she says.
“I have seen my father go through a lot of racism. I know my family have experienced a lot of racism. For me, it is really raw and those topics are really difficult.
“You are already functioning on all cylinders, trying to emotionally hold yourself together as you’re dealing with your childhood dream potentially going down the pan, managing the changes of life that were happening so fast, a lockdown and the mental side of that.
“Then on top of that, adding on racism and Black Lives Matter – it was an awful lot to take.”
Making it through a year full of such uncertainty and hardship and remaining so focused on her goals shows incredible strength.
And it is when discussing the topic of race that Fleming reveals what has continued to drive her forward over 20 years on from sharing what seemed an unlikely dream with her teacher.
“Representation is huge,” she says.
“I think you do need to see it to become it. I broke that mould because I couldn’t see it but here I am as it.
“It is so important and if there are little girls who look like me who then see me play and pick up a ball, is there a bigger honour?
“If I can do that for any mixed race girl anywhere, maybe in the heart of a village like I was down in Cornwall where there’s not many people who look like me, then I’d love to.”